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Short Story: Relic Hunters: The Falcon's Treasure

Falcon’s Lair was busier than Bane had ever remembered it being. “Think we can find a seat?”


Bane glanced down at his friend, Shinjou Masakatsu, more commonly known as Raven. Raven stood several inches shorter than Bane. His shoulder-length, dark, curly hair and nearly black eyes stood in stark contrast to Bane’s long, straight, platinum locks and amber eyes. Raven’s coloring was more bronze while Bane’s was golden. Both had spent numerous hours in the sun, but Raven, being Agrian and of “exotic” descent, tended to darken the longer he remained beneath the Illdirin sun. Bane, on the other hand, would grow more golden because of his mixture of fair Elvin and gold Seraph skin tones. So where Raven could romp about without a shirt or long pants in the summer, Bane tended to wear long sleeved t-shirts and jeans, and on what skin wasn’t covered, he slathered generous amounts of sunscreen to keep the sun from turning him into an embarrassing yellow spectacle.


“We’ll find a seat,” he said, and moved further into the diner. He spotted an empty booth in the back corner and pointed at it. “Over there.”


They made their way over and slid into the bench seats. A few moments later, a waitress came and laid menus down in front of them.


“Can I get you anything to drink?” she asked.


“I’ll take a hot, strong quava. Double cream and sucre,” Raven said. “Bane?”


“Water’s fine for me,” Bane answered.


The waitress left them alone to peruse their menus. She returned a few minutes later, set their drinks in front of them, then took their orders.


“So what’s this job you were telling me about?” Bane asked while they waited for their food to arrive.


“A friend of mine has been studying up on Queen Medi’s Mine. He thinks he knows where it’s at.”


“A friend of yours,” Bane said. He wasn’t impressed.


Raven took a drink of his quava, then leaned forward to speak more quietly. “Yeah, he thinks it’s somewhere near Cahyrst.”


“How could it be near Cahyrst? Queen Medi lived in Tumunzar City.”


“I know, right? But how much diamond mining have we found in the Indun Mountains? She would have had to import diamonds to her kingdom. And we both know Cahyrst had some serious diamond mining going on at that time.”


“True,” Bane said, tapping the table, deep in thought. He looked at his friend. “So your friend wants to hire us to find it?”


“Yup.”


“How much is he willing to pay? You gave him a price, right?”


“’Course I did, and he’s willing to pay half a mil. He doesn’t want any special treatment.”


“Good to know,” Bane said, nodding.


The waitress came with their food. She set it down in front of them and asked if they’d like anything else.


Raven lifted his now empty quava cup. “More quava.”


“Sure thing, Hon,” she said. She went to get the pot, returned, and poured him a cup, gave him some more cream and sucre, then left again.


While eating, the friends continued to discuss the current job. After a few minutes, Bane pushed back his empty plate.


“Tell him we’ll take the job,” he said.


“Will do. In the meantime, I’m gonna get some dessert. It’s been a while since I’ve had any chacao cake.”


“Knock yourself—damn!” Bane muttered.


“What?” Raven asked, following his friend’s gaze. “Damn!”


Their rival, Brett Holt, had just entered the diner, and he was headed straight toward them, followed by his cousin, Charlie. Brett wore a cocky grin on his face, and at the sight of him, Bane balled his hands into fists.


“Take it easy, man,” Raven said quietly. “Whatever he says, just let it ride.”


“Yeah, right.”


Brett stopped at their table. “Hey, hey, what’s up, guys? Found any good treasure lately?”


“Nothing you’d be interested in,” Raven said, leaning back casually as he glared up at the fellow relic hunter.


Brett wore his denim shirt open at the neck, his skin every bit as bronzed as Raven’s. His smile was easy as he ran a hand through his collar-length brown hair. “Thought maybe you’d found some runes or something—oh, wait, I’ve got those!” Brett laughed at his own joke.


“You’re a disgrace to the business,” Bane muttered. “You give us all a bad name.”


“Now, now.” Brett tsked, waving a finger in the air. He pushed himself into the booth beside Bane. “I only did what I had to. You’d’a done the same. Admit it.”


“We’re not cheaters.” Bane spat, looking his rival straight in the eye.


“I didn’t cheat. I just—cut a few corners. Yeah, that’s it.”


“Do you even know how to find treasure on your own, Holt? Or do you always follow other hunters around, let them find it, then take it for yourself?” Raven asked. “You’re not fooling anyone, you know.”


“Oh, that,” Brett waved Raven’s words away. “That was a one-time deal.”


“Uh huh.”


Brett put a hand over his heart. “I swear it. That was a one-time deal. Either one of you woulda done the same exact thing in my place.”


“No, we wouldn’t.” Bane argued. “You know what your problem is, Holt? All you care about it your own damn self. What’s in it for you. You don’t care about the hard work the rest of us put in. And in the process, you’ve got everyone believing that we’re all a bunch of selfish grave robbers and thieves.”


“Technically—”


“Shut up!” Bane and Raven demanded in unison.


“Don’t get mad, guys,” Brett said, flashing a brilliant smile. “Get even. You think I’m a selfish, no good opportunist, then don’t let me get the drop on you next time. Think of me as your own personal trainer. I’m teaching you to think on your feet, to be ready for anything.”


“Oh, boy,” Raven said, rolling his eyes. “Someone’s full of himself.”


“Please,” Brett laughed. “You’re both just jealous because I’m the one who came back with the Kismet Runes.”


Bane glared at him. “The only reason you were the one who came back with them was because you were the one with the damn gun!”


Brett shrugged. “Details. It’s not my fault you weren’t expecting me. You should know by now to always expect me.”


Bane held a finger up in front of Brett’s face. “If you ever do anything like that again, you’ll wish you’d played fair. I’ll make sure of it.”


“And on that note,” Brett said, slipping out of the booth and standing beside Charlie, who’d watched the whole exchange with a worried expression on his face. “It’s time for me to go and let you fume. It’s clear you still can’t admit that I’m better than you, and—”


Bane slid out of the booth and was nearly on top of Brett before Raven knew it. The Agrian jumped up and forced himself between Bane and Brett. “Cool it, both of you.” He pushed Bane back toward the booth. “Sit, Bane.”


“Listen to Raven,” Brett said. “His cool head could keep you out of trouble.”


Raven turned on Brett. “And you, go find your own table. Preferably far away from ours. You come over here again, I’ll shoot you in the knee cap.”


“You wouldn’t dare,” Brett said, sizing him up.


“You want to test that theory?”


They stood staring at each other for several seconds, then Brett let out a breath and took on an air of boredom.


“Oh, very well. Your one track minds are boring me to tears anyway. Come, Charlie. There’s a good seat over by the windows.”


With that, Brett spun on his heel and walked away, seemingly oblivious to the fact that every eye in the diner was upon him at that moment.


Charlie hesitated. He looked as if he wanted to apologize.


“Charlie!” Brett barked.


Charlie ran to catch up to his cousin, his head hung low and his hands jammed into his pockets.


Raven began to slide back into the booth, but Bane put a hand on his arm.


“No, let’s get outta here.”


“But I haven’t had—”


“You can get dessert somewhere else. The longer I have to look at that creep, the more nauseated I’ll get.”


“Fair enough,” Raven said, and he straightened.


Bane left a good tip on the table, then he headed for the register with Raven hot on his heels. A few minutes later, they left and headed for Raven’s truck.


~*~


Raven dropped Bane off at their apartment building, then left to run some errands.


Bane went up to his apartment and flopped on the couch.


It took him a few moments to realize that something wasn’t right. He bolted upright and studied his surroundings. The signs were subtle, but they were there. A picture not quite hung right. A lamp shade tilted slightly more than it had been earlier. A drawer not quite shut all the way.


He rose to his feet and moved to the bedroom, careful to make sure that no one was lurking inside waiting for him.


He reached above his writing desk and took down the sword that hung there. Quietly, he drew Aithne from its sheath, and moved out into the main room.


His eyes took in everything as he watched for movement. His instincts told him that whoever had been there was long gone, but he wasn’t taking any chances.


He moved into the kitchen and checked the cupboards. No one, not even a faerie or gnome was in there.


Slowly, methodically, he checked every room until he was back in the bedroom. He’d found no one lurking about. Nothing missing.


Suddenly, a thought came to him, and he dove for the desk. He unlocked the bottom drawer and felt around inside. He breathed a sigh of relief as he found what he was looking for, and he took it out. It was an old cigar box that had seen better days, but he held it as if it were a priceless treasure, because to him, it was.


His relief died as quickly as it had come when he realized the box was lighter than usual. Quickly, he opened it and looked inside. His heart nearly stopped. The journal was gone!


This was no ordinary journal. It was one of several journals that had been kept by his oldest and dearest friend, long since departed. Sahmi Zamada, the man the Falcon’s Lair had been named after, had been a legend in his own time. Now, more than a millennium later, he’d become the subject of many myths, songs, books, and even movies. The journal had told some of the stories from his time as captain of the Prospero and Leviathan. And in the man’s own words. That alone made the journal valuable. But to Bane, it had sentimental value of the highest order. It enabled the arael to stay connected to the past, a past he never wanted to forget.


And now his connection to that era was gone.


But who would have taken it? Who would have the guts to break into his apartment?


“Holt, dammit!” Bane muttered. Only Holt would be stupid enough to steal from him.


Bane put his sword away. He took out his hunting knife and strapped it on, then he grabbed his keys and left. He was going to Brett’s house. One way or another, he was going to get that journal back, and when he did, Holt would wish he’d never messed with the arael.


~*~


Bane’s anger seethed just beneath the surface, the only sign a clenching of his jaw. Years of experience had taught him to remain cool in these kinds of circumstances. He kept his goal in mind — confront Brett about the theft of his journal, then do what needed to be done.


When he arrived at Brett’s house, there were no vehicles in the driveway, which led him to believe his rival wasn’t home. Still, he went to the door and knocked. When he got no answer, he went around to the back to see if he was in the shed. The man wasn’t anywhere to be found.


Bane picked the lock to the back door and slipped inside, determined to find Sahmi’s journal and take it back. The rooms were large with high ceilings. The furnishings were white and modern, upholstered in charcoal gray fabric or made of solid wood. Oak, by the look of it. A few photos adorned the walls in the bedroom. The other rooms had large, framed artwork to accompany the rest of Brett’s furniture. The subject matter of the artwork didn’t surprise Bane in the least. In one, a man and woman kissing beside a flashy sports car. In another, a beach front bar on a tropical island where the patrons were beautiful and wore little. A brightly lit city at night where everything glittered like gold. It was no secret among relic hunters that Brett Holt was one of the flashier of their kind. These paintings only confirmed what Bane already knew — Brett Holt cared only about great wealth and the lifestyle it offered.


He searched every room with care, putting everything back just as he’d found it. When done, he still hadn’t found the journal.


He thought about sitting and waiting for Brett to show up. He was just about to sit down on the sofa when Brett’s home communication device chirped. When no one answered, there came a beep, then a masculine voice spoke.


“I’ve got you a flight to Gaayabaar. It leaves at six. Call me for the confirmation number before five. Also, as you instructed, I’ve added a surprise for your rivals. You won’t have to worry about them for a while. You should have no problem finding what you’re looking for with them out of the way. Let me know what you find, and I’ll give you an estimate. Otherwise, have a good trip. I’ll talk to you when I talk to you.”


There was a click, a dial tone, then the line went dead.


Bane pulled out his mobile communications device and dialed Raven’s number. His friend didn’t answer, and that gave him a bad feeling.


He exited the back of the house and walked around to where his car was parked by the sidewalk out front. He kept trying to call Raven all the way back to their apartment building, getting no response.


He saw the law enforcers and firefighters before he ever reached the apartment building. People crowded the sidewalks and yards to watch as firefighters went in and out of the building, sometimes bringing people with them. Law enforcers stood talking to various onlookers, no doubt getting their eyewitness accounts — or non-accounts.


Bane got out of his car and started asking around. He ran into Rudy Watts, his upstairs neighbor, and asked him about what was happening.


“Someone set a fire in the basement. It’s out now, but I guess they think someone deliberately set it. They want everyone out so they can search the building. They haven’t said what they’re looking for.”


“Have you seen Raven?” Bane asked.


Rudy nodded. “About ten minutes before everyone got here, I saw him going out the back. He was with a couple of guys.”


“Guys? Can you describe them?”


Rudy thought about it for a moment. “Both about average height and build. One was blond, the other a redhead. Come to think of it, Raven didn’t look very happy at the time.”


“How did he look?”


“If I had to make a guess, he was pissed pretty good.”


“Do you know which way they went?”


“No, sorry. I was in a rush to get out. They’d told me about the fire, and it was pretty heavy on my mind.”


“Of course,” Bane said, understanding. “Thanks for your help.”


“I hope you find him.”


“So do I.”


Bane headed back to his car and climbed in. He wasn’t sure where to take it from here. He had to find Raven, but he also had to find the journal.


He decided to call the League of Sentinels Headquarters. Maybe she could do something. He would tell her about the message he’d heard at Brett Holt’s place, though he didn’t know if it would help her. She had fifty sentinels at her disposal. Surely, they could find Raven.


As for Bane, he planned to go to Gaayabaar.


He took out his MCD and called Catin Mondragon, the leader of the Westerview chapter of the League of Sentinels. She answered on the second ring.


“Can you get your people out looking for Raven? He’s missing. I think he’s been abducted.”


“What makes you think that?”


“Someone may have set a fire in the basement here, and Raven was seen leaving with two guys. According to the eye witness, he looked angry.”


“Who set the fire? Is everyone all right?”


“As far as I can tell, no one’s been hurt. Raven’s missing, and I’m pretty sure Brett Holt’s behind this.”


“Brett? Would he do something like that?”


“I have no doubt he would. Someone stole Sahmi’s journal from my apartment. My guess is that Brett hired someone to take it. They were too careless and left clues. What’s more, I went to his house to get it back. He wasn’t there, but while I was looking around, someone called and left a message. Said they got him a ticket to Gaayabaar.”


“So? Lots of people travel. And Gaayabaar — heck, all of Al Shasra — is a hot spot for tourism nowadays.”


“You didn’t let me finish,” Bane said, impatient. “The guy on the phone said he’d left a surprise for his rivals, that ‘they wouldn’t be a problem for him for a while’.”


“Who’s ‘them?’”


“My guess is it’s Raven and me. Which is why I called you. Raven’s missing. I need you and your people to find him while I go to Gaayabaar and track down Brett.”


“Are you going after Sahmi’s treasure?”


“Looks like I don’t have a choice. If I don’t get to it first, Brett will. I can’t let him have anything of Sahmi’s.”


“I understand. We’ll do everything we can to find Raven, but please, be careful. I don’t trust Brett Holt as far as I can spit.”


“You and me both. I’ll be careful. Just find Raven.”


“Will do. He’s at the top of the list. Don’t worry. We’ll find him.”


Bane felt better about leaving, now that Catin had agreed to make finding Raven a priority. He went home, quickly packed a bag, then went to the airport.


~*~


A couple of hours after Bane got off the phone with Catin, Brett Holt arrived in Gaayabaar, Al Shasra. He took a cab into town and stopped at a local cafe for lunch.


While he ate his seafood platter and drank his tropical smoothie laced with Al Shasran rum, his MCD chirped. He pulled it out and, recognizing the number of watcher, Anthony Serrano, answered it.


“What’s up, my man?” he asked.


“I just wanted to let you know that Shinjou Masakatsu has been captured.”


“And the other one?”


“Still at large. But don’t worry, we’ll catch him.”


Brett set down his fork, giving Serrano his undivided attention. His instincts told him the man was wrong.


“No you won’t. He’s on his way here.”


“How can you possibly know that?”


“I know the arael.” Brett thought about it for a moment. “He will have called someone. Most likely Catin Mondragon. I’ll need you to throw them off so they don’t find Masakatsu right away.”


“That can be arranged. What are you going to do?”


“Find the treasure. But can you create a diversion?”


“What kind of diversion?” Serrano asked.


“Something to slow the arael down. He knows the islands better than I do. I just need an hour or two. Think you can swing it?”


“If he’s headed to the islands, yes, I can do it. I’ll make a phone call or two. It’s as good as done.”


“Good. Once I get hold of the treasure, I’ll make sure you get a little extra for your troubles.”


“You know what I want. I don’t care about the money. I want the artifact.”


“If it’s there, you’ll have it.”


“If it’s not, money will do. But if I find out it was there and you took it, I can promise I won’t take kindly to that.”


“We have an agreement. No funny stuff. You have my word.”


“Then I won’t keep you any longer. Good luck, Mr. Holt. I’ll talk to you when you have the treasure.”


Brett hung up the MCD and set it on the table. He picked up his fork and took a bite of the lobster, savoring it. He washed it down with the last of his smoothie, then flagged down a waitress to bring him a pot of quava.


Once she brought him the quava, he pulled an old, leather bound journal out of his pack. The leather was worn, but very much intact. The front cover was embossed with a simple picture of a cog ship. This ship had a flag, and upon the flag was a stylized picture of a falcon. The symbol of the pirate captain, Sahmi Zamada.


Brett smiled as he opened the journal. For a good hour, he sat perusing the journal. He memorized every word on every page he deemed important, burning them into his eidetic memory.


The information he attained wasn’t quite enough for him to pinpoint the location of the treasure, so he decided he would need to get more information from some of the locals, especially older ones who had lived on the islands their whole lives. He would start with the local museum, then take it from there.


He quickly finished his quava, then he slipped the journal into his pack. He asked the waitress for the bill, left a good tip on the table, then he paid the bill and left.


Outside, he flagged down a rickshaw and climbed in.


“Where to?” the young runner asked.


“Take me to the Gaayabaar Museum of Al Shasran History,” Brett answered, settling himself into the seat.


The runner nodded, and a moment later, the small cart began moving.


~*~


Brett was long gone by the time the arael arrived. Bane hadn’t checked any baggage, so it should have been a straight shot from the airport to his hotel, but it didn’t work out that way. Instead, as soon as he disembarked from the plane and headed outside, a beautiful young woman approached him, her straight, black hair, dark eyes, and olive complexion a dead giveaway as to her Al Shasran heritage before she ever spoke.


“Are you Bane Asmodei?” she asked.


“Yes. Did Catin send you?”


“She did,” the woman answered. She held out a well-manicured hand with long, red nails. “I am Amaani Shafaar. I have a car waiting not far from here. If you’ll follow me.”


She turned and walked away. Bane caught up easily, admiring the way her slender hips swayed with each step.


They made small talk on the way to the hotel, and before he knew it, she pulled the car to a stop in front of a swanky hotel, the kind that Catin would pay for, but that he would have passed up, despite the fact that he had plenty of money to cover their finest suite.


They went inside, and the temperature dove about fifteen degrees. He’d had one too many cups of quava on the plane, and he had to make a trip to the restroom. He excused himself and headed in that direction.


After finishing up, he called Catin, who answered on the second ring.


“How’s it going?” she asked.


“I just got here. Hey, can you cancel the room you got me? It’s too fancy. I’ll get something more modest.”


“What are you talking about?”


“The hotel. It’s too much.”


“Back up, Bane. I don’t know what hotel you mean.”


“You didn’t reserve a room for me?”


“No. I figured you’d have that covered. I didn’t hire you to go there. You went on your own. Why would I pay for anything?”


“So — you didn’t send a woman to meet me at the airport?”


“What woman?”


“She says her name’s Amaani Shafaar. Claimed you sent her to meet me.”


“I didn’t send anyone. I don’t know who she is, but I’d bet she’s there on Holt’s behalf. Probably to slow you down.”


“That no good sonofa—”


“Don’t sweat it. Just lose her.”


“Looks like I’ll have to.” Bane went to the door and looked out toward the lobby. He spotted the woman standing near the reception desk. She wasn’t looking his way. “Look, I’m gonna ditch her. I’ll call you right back.”


“Okay,” Catin said, and they hung up.


Bane slipped out the bathroom door, and upon finding the woman still turned the other way, he went down the hallway in the opposite direction. He found a back door and exited through it, finding himself in an alley behind the building. He made his way west, and soon, he ducked into a liquor store.


He called Catin back.


“Alright, I think I’ve lost her.”


“Good,” Catin said. “So, was she pretty?”


“What?”


“Was she pretty?”


“I don’t know. I wasn’t paying attention.”


“Liar.” Catin’s voice wasn’t angry. She was teasing him.


He let it slide. “Have your people found Raven yet?”


“No, not yet, but they’re still looking. Raven can take care of himself. I’m sure he’ll be all right until we find him.”


“Just keep me in the loop, alright?”


“Of course. So what are you going to do now?”


“I don’t know. I haven’t had time to think about that. If Brett’s already here, I doubt he’ll take a break and give me a chance to catch up. I should keep moving.”


“You could sleep on the beach. Or you could hang out at Sahmi’s family’s old place.”


“That’s private property. Besides, I don’t want to go there,” Bane said, a slightly ill feeling in the pit of his stomach at the thought. “It’ll just drag me down.”


“Don’t think about it. Just do it. You may find it’s not as bad as you think.”


“Unlikely. Anyway, I’m gonna see about finding someplace near the beach. If nothing else, I can get in some food and rest.”


“Do that. I’ll let you know if they find Raven, and you can let me know how things are going on your end, okay?”


“All right,” he said and hung up.


~*~


Things went well for Brett at the Gaayabaar Museum of Al Shasran History. So well, in fact, that he’d gotten the name of someone who might know a lot about Sahmi Zamada and his treasure. After leaving the museum, he got another car to take him to the old man’s house. They were more than half way there when the car’s engine started hammering loudly. Finally, it shut down, and the driver had to steer the car to the side of the road.


“What’s up?” Brett asked.


“It’s overheated. Got to let it sit for a while and cool off.”


“How long will it take?”


“A while. Want me to call you another car?”


“Please.”


“All right. Just let me pop the hood first.”


The driver climbed out of the car and went around to the front. He opened the engine hood, and steam rose from inside.


Brett muttered a curse. Why hadn’t the guy checked to make sure everything was working right? Why hadn’t he maintained the vehicle?


He felt a small sense of relief when the driver came around the side. He was on the phone with the cab company.


He ducked his head into the car. “It’ll be about thirty minutes, maybe a little more. That all right?”


“It’ll have to be.”


“I’m gonna go take a piss. Don’t wander off.”


Brett scowled as he watched the driver move off, then he reached into his pack and pulled out the journal. Might as well do some reading, he figured. Maybe he’d find something he’d missed.


~*~


Bane kept to the shadows until he was far enough away that Amaani Shafaar — if that really was her name — wouldn’t find him. Then he moved out onto the sidewalk.


He stopped in at a couple of stores for snacks and water, then he headed for the beach. He knew all about Sahmi’s lagoon. He’d been there many times. It had hardly changed in the 1200 years or so since he’d first been there.


The old Zamada estate was on the way. He dreaded going there. It brought back too many memories, all good. Most days he was all right. But on days like this one, he longed to return to the days of old when he enjoyed his friendships with Sahmi and Dumar, and Luca and the rest of the crew. Thinking of them now put him in a funk he tried to shake off.


He took a southwesterly route along the sandy shore until he saw the large house in the distance. The main house was up on a hill. It had been rebuilt several times, and though the new structure was modern, in his mind’s eye, he could see it as it once was. He pictured Sahmi’s mother, Carmen, standing at the front door and gazing out over the water, as if watching for the return of her favorite son.


Bane had teased Carmen many times about running away with him, though in hindsight, he realized the teasing had only been half in jest. She’d been incredibly beautiful. If she would have agreed, he really would have taken her away. That would have opened a can of worms he was mostly glad he’d avoided, however. He wasn’t sure how Sahmi would have taken his best friend and his mother carrying on. And there was the fact that she was happily married, as well. At least they’d seemed happily married. Bane had always suspected that there was a part of Carmen that longed to be free of Erayo, though he could never prove it.


He gulped and looked away, blinking back the tears the memory had brought to his eyes. He wouldn’t give in. Not now.


He questioned the wisdom of going to the old estate. It would be hard to take shelter near the place that had once been his best friend’s home. But the way he saw it, the estate was the one place in all of Gaayabaar where Amaani Shafaar wouldn’t think to look for him. Everyone who knew anything about him knew that he avoided the place like a plague.


As he approached, he remembered why. Memories of what had been flooded back to him, causing him to stumble. His eyes blurred from the tears threatening to spill over. Of all the friends he’d lost over the last 1200 years, Sahmi’s death had hit him the hardest. It had even been harder than that of his precious Oceanna.


Suddenly, the grief brought him to his knees. He’d never truly allowed himself to grieve, and now it seemed his grief wouldn’t let go of him. A great sob escaped from somewhere deep inside, and he threw himself into the sand and wept bitterly.


He lost track of how long he lay there weeping. He would have continued if it hadn’t been for a dog barking in the distance. From the sound of it, it was a large dog.


He sat up and dried his eyes with the back of his hand. He looked around, and in the distance, he spotted a large, black dog. It was still a good distance from him, but there was no mistaking that it was coming for him.


He pushed himself to his feet, hefted his pack over both shoulders, and ran toward the ruins with as much speed as his legs would give him. He ran until he grew tired. His lungs burned, and still he ran, though his steps were more lumbering by then.


A stone wall loomed up ahead. Bane grabbed onto the top of the wall and hauled himself up onto it.


The dog reached it and jumped, it’s great jaws snapping at his heel. It had just missed his foot by an inch or two.


He lay back atop the wall to catch his breath. Below him, the dog continued to bark threateningly.


Thunder boomed, and Bane opened his eyes in surprise as the first fat raindrops landed on his face. He pushed himself upright and climbed down the other side of the wall. He spotted the old guest house a few yards away. This part of the estate hadn’t been maintained, and it was in ruins. However, one corner of the roof still remained intact, to some degree, and he headed for that.


The dog, still on the other side of the wall, continued barking and scratching at its stones. It would not be deterred by any storm.


Bane reached the far corner of the ruined guest house and sat down on the hard packed ground there. Though open to the elements on two sides, it would serve to keep Bane dry while he came up with a plan.


He took out some pemmican and a bottle of water, and he settled in for what he was sure would be a rough afternoon.


~*~


Another car finally arrived, and Brett switched to it. He felt a bit dubious as to whether or not it could get him where he needed to go, as it didn’t look to be in much better shape than the first.


To his surprise, it got him there, and the driver stopped the car in front of an old, dilapidated shack. Brett paid the fare, then sauntered toward the front porch. An old man who looked to have seen at least a hundred summers sat smoking a pipe. A thick glass containing rum and ice sat on a small table beside a bottle of rum near his elbow.


“Can I help you?” the old man asked.


Brett tipped his hat back a little. “I’m here to see Raffi Jabaara. Is he here, by any chance?”


“You’ve found him, young man. Pull up a chair.”


Brett moved up the stairs, surprised at how sturdy they felt, then he pulled a nearby chair up to the table. He set his pack on the floor next to him. “I heard you’ve lived in these parts all your life. I wondered if you could tell me—”


Raffi held up a finger, silencing Brett. “First, we drink. Yes?”


Brett nodded. “Okay.”


He was eager to get down to business, but if the man needed to take things slow, he would go along with it. He sensed it was the only way he would get any information out of him anyway.


Lightning flashed, and Brett counted the seconds until the thunder came. By his estimate, the storm was about thirty miles out. With any luck, he could conclude his business here and get another cab before the rain started. The air already smelled heavy, as if the clouds would open up at any moment, and he was glad for the overhang above him.


The old man had a spare glass that looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in weeks. He wiped it out with an old rag, then filled it with rum. He slid it to Brett, who picked it up and took a drink.


“Good stuff,” he said.


“Only the best will do. No need for that old rot gut some people make.”


“True.” Brett agreed.


“So, what can I do you for?”


“I’m trying to find some information.”


“About—?”


Brett leaned down and unzipped his pack, pulled out the journal, opened to a page he’d marked, and slid it across the table to Raffi. “Is there any chance you can pinpoint the area mentioned here?”


Raffi read the passage. He looked up, his gaze afar off. “I might know the place.”


“Can you draw a map for me?”


“I don’t know how accurate it’ll be, but I can try, for the right price. You after the treasure?”


“If it’s there. Is that a problem?”


“Not for me, but it’s in gang territory. You’ll want to be armed. And watch your back. Those thugs are sneaky, they are.”


“I can handle them.”


“So what’ll you pay me to draw this map? Rum ain’t cheap here. Neither are food and water. And upkeep on this mansion of mine.” Raffi laughed. What few teeth he had were yellowed with age and rotting away.


“I’ll pay you a hundred dubs to draw it for me.” Brett pulled a small pad of paper and a pen from his pack and handed them to the old man.


Raffi set to drawing, and as he moved pen over paper, he explained the area to Brett. “From here, you’ll set out toward the west. The hills separate the southern coast from the inland. Once you get through the jungle, you should see a lagoon. That’s where you want to be.” He turned the pad around and pointed to a spot where he’d drawn an X. “See that? It marks the entrance to a cave. I’ve never been inside, but I can tell you what I’ve heard, if you want.”


“Please,” Brett said.


“Alright,” Raffi said. He pulled the pad back toward himself and began drawing below the map as he continued. “There’s a passageway at the back of the cave. Take it for about fifty feet, then it branches off two ways. The left is a dead end. The right will take you to a cavern. There are other false corridors along the way. They go just far enough to waste a few minutes, but none of them are dangerous.”


“What can you tell me about the cavern?”


“It’s about like any other. Rather small compared to some. You’ll find the usual stalagmites and stalagtites inside. The centerpiece, though—it’s a stone pedestal. On top of this, you’ll find a small wooden trunk. That’s where the treasure is supposed to be.”


“How do you know all this?” Brett asked, sitting back in his chair.


“I’ve never had much use for treasure, but I’ve been interested in the lore of the place. What I just told you is what I’ve heard. I can’t guarantee the validity of it. I can only tell you that I’m not lying about what I’ve heard.”


“Fair enough.” Brett pulled out his wallet and took out a crisp, new 100 dub bill. He handed it to Raffi. “Thanks for your help. And the drink.”


“No problem, man. I don’t get much company out in these parts. I hope you find the treasure.”


Brett touched the rim of his hat, then tipped it forward a bit before picking up his pack and turning to go.


“Say, how do you plan to get out there?”


Brett turned to look at him. “I’ll call another cab.”


“After all the rain we’ve had, they won’t be able to get through. But I’ve got a donkey you can use. Just cost you fifty dubs more, and you won’t have to buy gas or worry ‘bout breakdowns.”


“That sounds like a fair offer. What condition is it in?”


“She’s sturdy as they come. She’s well looked after and has been itchin’ to get back on the trail. Pay up, and she’s yours for the duration.”


Brett took out some more cash and handed it to Raffi, who counted it and slipped it into a pocket along with the first bill.


“Wait here. I’ll get her ready for you and bring her ‘round. Have another drink or two while you wait.”


Brett slipped his wallet back, then he took a seat. He studied the map for a few minutes, burning the image into his memory. The rain arrived, tap-tap-tapping on the roof above him. He frowned at the thought of traveling in bad weather, and he pulled a clear, plastic poncho out of his pack. He slipped it over his head, anticipating its need when he hit the trail.


In the time it took him to have two more drinks, Raffi saddled and bridled an aging donkey and brought her around to the front of the house.


“Myrtle, here, is getting old, but she’s strong. She’s not one to panic at gunshots or thunder. If anyone can get you through those hills, it’s this girl.”


“I don’t doubt it,” Brett said, inspecting the donkey. “How long do you figure it’ll take me to get there if I don’t run into trouble?”


“A couple of days, tops. Unless this rain turns into a deluge. In which case, it could take you twice that, at least.”


Brett held a hand out to the old man, who took it with a firm grip.


“I’ll bring her back as soon as I’m done. Thanks for all your help.”


“Bring Myrtle back in good shape, and I’ll be happy.”


Brett took the reins in hand and put his left foot into the stirrup, then he raised himself up and swung his right leg over Myrtle’s back. He settled himself in the saddle, then lightly kicked the donkey’s sides. He nodded to Raffi, then focused on the path ahead and the hills in the distance. The rain was coming down harder, and he wanted to find shelter before the bulk of the storm arrived.


~*~


Bane shivered. As it turned out, the two walls weren’t enough to protect him from the elements. The wind blew the rain right into his shelter, so the roof didn’t do him any good until the wind finally died down some time later.


He shivered again and pulled out his MCD. He tried calling Raven’s number again. For the fifth time, he got no response.


He called Catin next. She answered on the third ring.


“Hey, I’m at the Zamada guest house ruins.”


“Are you okay?”


He smiled slightly at the concern in her voice. “Yeah, just a bit wet and cold. I’ll be all right. Have you found Raven yet?”


“No, but we’ll be searching round the clock. I promise, we’ll find him.”


“I know. Thanks.”


“So, what’re your plans?”


“Once this rain lets up, I’m gonna head down to the lagoon, see if I can find the cave. If I can find it, I’ll know I’m close.”


“Any sign of Brett Holt?”


“Not yet, but I’m watching—” His voice trailed off as he spotted a man coming his way. The owner of the dog, maybe?


“Bane? Are you there?”


“Um, yeah, I’m here. Hang on.” He squinted through the rain and noticed the man had a mohawk, and he wore a leather vest, pants, and biker boots. He also held a knife in his hand, a nasty looking thing with a serrated blade. “Catin, I’ll have to call you back.”


“What’s hap—?” Catin began, but he hung up the phone, flipped it shut, and slipped it back into his pocket. He knelt down and pulled the knife from his boot, then waited for the man to draw near.


~*~


Brett found a rocky overhang under which to take shelter. By then, Myrtle was struggling to keep her footing on the muddy path. One slip in the wrong direction could have sent donkey and rider crashing to their deaths far below. Brett didn’t want to take that chance.


There was a bush on which to tether Myrtle, and sparse grass for her to eat. Brett sat down to inspect the journal. His pack had kept it dry, but he didn’t want to take any more chances, so he took out an extra plastic bag and slipped it into that and sealed it with a small cord. This he slipped into another plastic bag, sealing it, as well.


Once this small chore was done, he took out a protein bar, some venison jerky, and a bottle of water. Once finished with his meal, he packed away all wrappers and containers, then retrieved his bedroll and spread it out on the ground. He sat down, and thought about where to go from here.


He closed his eyes and pictured the map in his mind. Raffi had drawn a landmark a couple of miles or so ahead — stone ruins of an archway. If he went through that, the trail would lead him toward the lagoon. He could actually see the lagoon. From up here. It appeared to be closer than it actually was, but because of the winding nature of the path, it would take him several more hours to get there.


He looked out over the jungle. There had to be a quicker way to get there. Time was money, and every extra minute raised the chances that Bane Asmodei would get to the treasure first. He couldn’t afford to let that happen. He had to be the first one there.


But how? He didn’t know the terrain like Asmodei did.


He lay down, still puzzling over his predicament. He could follow the trail Raffi had drawn up, trying to speed it up when he could. Or he could go off the beaten path and keep the lagoon in sight, hoping he’d find a better trail down.


He fell fast asleep with this problem on his mind.


~*~


“Hey!” The man called out. “You got five minutes to get off my property.”


Bane didn’t respond. He didn’t think the man had seen him yet.


“Yo! I know you’re in there. I saw you.” The man laughed. “Plus, my dog don’t bark for no reason. Show yourself, or I’ll send him in after you.”


Slowly, Bane rose to his feet. “Your property? Looks abandoned to me.”


“Yeah, well, looks can be deceiving.”


“Not from where I’m standing. You know what I see?”


“What?”


“I see a two-bit hoodlum in a hurry to get his throat slit.”


“You think you can beat me?”


Bane smiled grimly. “I know I can. But I don’t want any trouble. I was just looking for a place to get out of the rain. I’ll leave, and no harm done.”


“Too late,” the man said. “You just challenged me. Now you gotta prove yourself.”


“You threatened me. What’d you expect me to do?”


“Don’t matter much, now, does it? This is my land, and you’re on it. So, let’s see what you’re made of.”


Bane glanced around. He saw a small opening at the back of the stone wall he might be able to squeeze through. He estimated how fast he would have to run to make it, then how long it would take to run to the edge of the jungle beyond. It would be close, but he had to try.


“All right, give me a minute.”


He went over to his pack and hefted it over his shoulder, then he made a mad dash for the back wall, his knife still in his hand. He heard the squeak of an old, rusted gate, then the barking of the dog, and he sped up his pace.


He reached the wall, but the space was too small for him to fit through. He dared to look back, and he caught the glint of sunlight on metal just before the shot rang out. The punk had a gun!


A bullet hit the rock inches to his left, then he felt a searing pain as the projectile ricocheted and sank itself into his bicep.


With all the strength he could muster, he hefted himself up onto the top of the wall, then jumped down the other side. His long legs quickly carried him to the edge of the jungle, and he took a zigzagging path, running around trees and brush and swinging his knife wildly to cut off any hindering vines that might entangle him.


The barking of the dog grew louder as the dog came closer and closer. Still Bane pushed onward, toward the nearby stream that led to within yards of the lagoon. If he could reach the stream soon enough, he could throw the dog off his scent.


That is if the stream had water in it.


~*~


When Brett woke, the sun was low on the horizon. He cursed his luck. He’d slept much longer than intended, and now he would have to rush if he wanted to get to the treasure before Bane.


He gathered the journal and other things into his pack, then mounted and guided Myrtle back onto the path, kicking her sides lightly to urge her to greater speed.


~*~


To Bane’s satisfaction, there was water in the stream. For some time, he moved through it, and when he’d put some distance between himself and the dog, he moved back onto the opposite shore. There was a path that led up into the hills, and he planned to lead the goon and his dog up into the jungle. The goon had struck him as a city dweller. He didn’t think the man would follow him very far into the hills. Once he lost him, Bane would head back down via a different route and go straight to the lagoon and find the cave.


With that thought in mind, Bane left the stream and headed north into the hills.


He stopped along the way to take out some gauze to bandage the wound in his arm. It would be several hours before he could have someone take a look at it, but he could at least sterilize and wrap it.


Once that was done, he set out again.


~*~


Brett was in danger of snoozing in the saddle. Myrtle’s pace was slow and steady, and the rhythmic movement made him sleepy.


A gunshot rang out, and he bolted upright. He glanced around, but saw nothing. He’d been keeping the bay on his left, and the forest on his right. He might have to go into the deep tangle of trees and brush if trouble lurked somewhere below.


He tugged on Myrtle’s reins, and when she halted, he stood in the stirrups in an effort to get a better look at the land below.


More gunshots rang out, and Myrtle fidgeted.


Brett sank into the saddle again and nudged the donkey forward. He strained his ears for the sound of more gunshots, for sounds of scuffles. He heard nothing but the birds in the trees, the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks in the distance, and the sound of Myrtle’s slow, steady gait on the path.


And he could again see the lagoon off in the distance. His heart quickened at the sight, and he urged the donkey to a slightly greater speed.


~*~


Bane continued walking for some time, and when he neither saw nor heard further signs of pursuit, he allowed himself to relax a bit. He let his mind wander to his purpose on the Isle of Aladraar, and a smile came to his face as he thought back on some of his exploits with his captain and best friend, Sahmi Zamada.


A shot rang out, and the trunk of the tree behind him splintered just above his head. He ducked just as another shot rang out, and he booked it through the trees as fast as he could.


The cliffs came into sight, and he made a run for them. It was a long way, but he was fast. And his pursuer was sure to run out of ammunition eventually.


Bane knew the cliffs like the back of his hand. He’d been coming here regularly for over a thousand years. He knew every chip, every handhold, every nook and cranny, and he would use them to good purpose.


He leapt up onto a large bolder, the first obstacle on the way to the higher elevations, and chanced a glance over his shoulder. The goon was still behind him, but he’d fallen back a bit. For the first time that Bane could remember, he was grateful for his long legs. They enabled him to keep a solid lead on his pursuer.


He spotted a familiar crevasse up ahead. He pushed himself, gaining momentum, then put all the strength he could into his legs and leapt over it. He didn’t stop once he landed, but he glanced back over his shoulder again as the goon stopped, clearly unwilling to risk the jump.


A bullet whistled by Bane’s pointed left ear, and another ricocheted off the stones in front of him to his right, harmlessly hitting the ground a few yards ahead. He glanced back again, and saw the goon turn and stalk away.


Bane didn’t slow down until he reached the end of the cliff. He looked back again. The goon was now nowhere in sight.


He stood at the edge of the precipice and looked down into the water far below. He knew it was much deeper than it seemed. And it was a long way down. The water would be cool. It would refresh him. It would also bring him a little closer to his target, the cave where Sahmi’s treasure was supposed to be.


He moved back several yards, took a deep breath and let it out, then he ran as fast as he could. In the next moment, he was airborne. Like a professional diver, he focused on his form in order to make the impact as minimal as possible, and when he hit the water, he barely noticed, save for the coolness of it. It felt good on his skin, and as he rose to the surface, another smile came to his face as he remembered Sahmi’s young son, Pedro, and his first swimming lessons in the very lagoon he was about to swim into.


With old memories on his mind, he swam toward the outer entrance to the lagoon. The high cliffs loomed above him, parted by about eight feet of empty space, each side of which had been carved at odd angles so as to make the entrance impossible to spot unless you were in the right place at the right time.


Once through, he made a beeline for the beach. He still found no sign of the goon as he emerged, and he flopped down on the sand to catch his breath and to enjoy the sun on his face.


Somehow, he felt as if he’d come home.


~*~


Brett pulled out his scope and surveyed the land below. He spotted a man wearing black leather and carrying a firearm, a large black dog by his side.


He halted and petted Myrtle’s neck in an effort to keep her calm and quiet. Soon, the gunman moved far enough past him that he could continue his traveling without being heard.


He nudged Myrtle onward, and she emerged from the forest at the bottom of the hill. The lagoon lay several dozen yards ahead, and he could see Bane sitting on the beach looking out over the water. If Brett were the killing type, he could have squeezed off a shot that would have taken the arael’s head clean off.


Good thing for the arael that he wasn’t a murderer.


Brett found a stand of palm trees, and he dismounted there, where the trunks could hide him and the donkey. He resumed petting Myrtle so she would remain quiet and not give away the fact that he was there.


He’d wanted to be the first to arrive, but since Bane had arrived first, he had to change his plan. So he watched the arael, waiting to see what his rival would do next. If he had to be an opportunist this time around, then by the gods, that’s what he’d be.


~*~


Bane thought over everything he remembered about Sahmi’s journal. He’d read it so many times, he could recite most of it by heart.


From where he sat, he knew that there would be a cave somewhere to his right, on the west side of the lagoon. At the back of the cave would be two tunnels, both carved by dwarfs Sahmi had paid well to dig. One of these — the right one — would take him directly to the treasure. Though Sahmi hadn’t said what the treasure was, he’d described it as ‘priceless.’


Bane wasn’t sure how Brett would have found out about this treasure. Sahmi had never talked about it. As far as he knew, the only place he’d ever mentioned it, besides to the dwarfs who’d dug the tunnels, had been in his journal. Maybe they had talked about it, and that was how Brett had made the discovery.


He shrugged. It didn’t really matter. What mattered was that Brett knew about it, and he was on the island. Bane had to keep him from getting his greedy hands on Sahmi’s treasure, no matter the cost.


Bane didn’t come to get rich like Brett clearly had. He came for something much more important — connection. He wouldn’t see his friend again until he went to the Agaean Plane someday. Until then, there were very few ways in which he could gain any sort of connection to his old friend. One way was to get hold of the treasure. His heart quickened at the knowledge that he was so close to something Sahmi had hidden away. He couldn’t wait to touch it, knowing that so long ago, Sahmi’s hands had also touched it.


He scanned the western wall with his eyes. He thought he saw the outer edge of the cave’s entrance. It was mostly hidden by palm trees and tangled vines and brush.


He pushed himself to his feet, hefted his bag onto his shoulder, and moved toward it. As he went, he pulled out his night vision goggles and slipped them around his neck.


When he reached the spot, he pushed the vines aside and, sure enough, there was the cave. His heart pounded with anticipation as he stepped into the darkness and slid the NV goggles over his eyes.


~*~


Thanks to his eidetic memory, Brett knew he was at the right place. Still, he left nothing to chance, and he compared his surroundings to the map and the descriptions in the journal. He was right on target.


He glanced up just in time to see Bane disappear into the side of the cliff.


He tethered Myrtle to the palm trees, then he retrieved his firearms from his saddle bags and strapped them on. Next, he grabbed his pack and slipped his arms into it.


He moved toward the cave, careful not to make any loud sounds that Bane might hear. He waited just outside the entrance long enough to give Bane a chance to move into the tunnels, then he entered the cave.


He pulled out his own pair of NV goggles and slipped them around his neck. He waited a minute or two, long enough for the arael to get far enough ahead that he wouldn’t hear his footsteps.


Then he slipped the goggles over his eyes, switched them on, and stepped into the tunnel.


~*~


As Bane made his way through the tunnel, he thought back to references Sahmi had made in other entries in his journal. Entries Brett may not have had time to read yet.


Near the beginning of the journal, Sahmi had mentioned dummy tunnels, short forays off the main tunnel designed to throw treasure hunters off the true course. Bane moved past these, knowing he was on the right track.


Finally, he reached the cavern he knew to be at the end of the tunnel. He spotted something he recognized, and he inhaled sharply at the sight. A small trunk made of iron and wood sat upon a narrow stone pedestal. He’d seen that trunk before, and he longed to stride right up to it and take it.


Caution won out over haste, however, as he expected there to be booby traps of various kinds along the way to it. As he carefully approached it, he looked for signs of various obstacles. He found none, and soon, he stood before the trunk and pedestal.


He studied the trunk for some time. He could find no triggers that might set off any dangerous traps or mines or anything of the kind, so he reached for it.


~*~


Having read and memorized the entire journal, Brett knew which tunnel to take. He also knew about the other dummy tunnels.


From the tunnel, Brett watched as Bane entered the cavern. He waited for the arael to move further into the cavern before approaching the entrance to it, then he watched as his rival approached the box on the pedestal.


He held his breath as Bane reached for it. He fully expected some kind of trap, but nothing of the kind happened. A light flashed, then went out. That was all. He scratched his head, wondering what the purpose of the light had been. But it seemed to have no ill effects, so he shrugged and forgot it.


Slowly, he drew the gun on his right and moved into the cavern.


As Bane turned away from the pedestal, the wooden box under his arm, Brett stepped closer. “Stop where you are.”


Bane growled, and Brett smirked.


“I’m not surprised you’d let me do all the work, then claim the treasure for yourself,” Bane said angrily. “You’re a cheat, Holt. You know, I don’t think you could find the bathroom unless someone led you to it.”


“Set the box back on the pedestal, then back off nice and easy.”


“Why should I?”


“Can you not see that I’m armed?”


“So?” Bane asked, defiance flashing in his amber eyes.


“You want me to shoot you, then.”


“What I want is for you to turn around and leave. For once, let go of your greed.”


“Set it down and back off,” Brett repeated, his voice flat.


Bane hesitated, but finally, he set the box back on the pedestal.


Brett tossed a pair of cuffs to him. “Put these on.”


“Why—?”


“Do it.” Brett cocked the firearm and aimed it at Bane’s forehead. He stood a few yards away, but he was close enough to hit his mark.


Bane did as ordered. As soon as the cuffs snapped into place, Brett stepped closer. He relieved Bane of Aithne, his sword. He also took his hunting knife. Then he retrieved the trunk. Again the light flashed, nearly blinding him in such close proximity to it.


In the next moment, a low rumbling came from somewhere deep within the earth. The ground began to vibrate, then it shook with increasing force.


Bane and Brett stared at each other for the briefest of moments as stalactites broke and fell to the ground around them. One barely missed Bane as he struggled to keep his footing.


Brett set the box back on the pedestal, but the ground only shook harder. He grabbed the box and made a run for it, leaving Bane to fend for himself.


“Holt!” Bane called out. “Holt! Unshackle me!”


Brett ignored him as he ran through the entrance to the tunnel and disappeared.


~*~


Bane ran after Brett, following him out into the tunnel. He tackled him a few dozen yards from the entrance to the cave.


Aithne and his knife slipped from Brett's grasp and clattered across the stone floor. The wooden trunk also fell, breaking open.


The relic hunters stared at each other, then they stared at the box. Brett grabbed for it, but Bane wrapped his arms around his neck, using the chain between the cuffs to cut off his air supply and pull him back away from the box.


Brett tried to reach it with his foot, but Bane’s legs were longer, and he kicked it away from his rival, still holding him down.


Bane adjusted his hold, turning it into a sleeper hold. “Stop fighting,” he ordered through clenched teeth. “It’s over. Stop!”


Brett struggled for a few seconds more, then finally surrendered, patting the floor with his hands.


~*~


Without letting go of Brett, Bane stretched his foot out toward the box and dragged it forward. He brought it close enough that he could open the lid with one hand, and he laid it back on its one good hinge, then looked inside. There, he found a small parchment scroll sealed with twine and a bit of red wax bearing Sahmi Zamada’s Red Falcon symbol.


He lifted the scroll, then glanced at Brett. “If I let go of you, are you going to try anything stupid?”


Brett held his hands up. “No way. I’m as curious about the treasure as you are.”


Bane doubted it, but he let go, ready to grab his rival, should he try something. When Brett did nothing, Bane returned his attention to the parchment and broke the seal. He unrolled it and began to read aloud.


Brett leaned in close, reading along with him, but Bane barely noticed as he read aloud:


"To whomever is reading this, I know you were expecting to find great treasure, but the contents of this box are only valuable to me. To anyone else, the contents hold no monetary value whatsoever.


In the bottom of this trunk is a false bottom…"



Bane and Brett glanced at each other, then Brett lunged for the box again.


Bane tightened his grip around Brett’s throat, stopping him cold.


Brett slumped and stopped fighting.


Bane reached into the box and felt around. He found a notch and pulled on it. The false bottom came up and he lifted it out. Under it, he found several items, many of which he remembered from his days with Sahmi and the crews of the Prospero and Leviathan: a small clay pot with a cork that was still secure; an amulet on a chain that had belonged to Dumar Cooper, then his son, Jayden; a sports medal that had belonged to Luca Rosetti; a white lace handkerchief; a small knife that had belonged to Sahmi’s birth father, Diego Tavares; a rabbit’s foot that the navigator, Gorduin Mourningdoom, had given to Sahmi before going into battle against the crew of the Pathfinder II, led by their former captain, Tobias Hancock; and a journal of Bane’s from his earliest years serving with Sahmi. And there were other things, besides these. Before his death, Sahmi had asked that each of them give him something of theirs, something he could treasure in the afterlife. There wasn’t one among them who wasn’t eager to do this one last favor for their friend and captain, though it broke their hearts to know that he would soon leave them.


“Can I go now?” Brett asked, his voice rough from the chain that still pushed against his throat.


“Unlock my shackles,” Bane said.


Brett pulled a chain from inside his shirt. A key dangled from it. He yanked it off and unlocked the cuffs.


Bane released Brett, who pushed himself to his feet. He handed Bane his sword and knife, then staggered away.


“Worthless,” he mumbled under his breath. “How such a sentimental fool got to be a great legend is a mystery to me.”


A small amused smile played at the corner of Bane’s mouth. He knew a lot more about Sahmi than Brett did. He knew exactly why his friend had grown to become such a famous legend, but he’d never tell.


He packed the treasures back into the box, then rose to his feet and carried it back outside. When he reached the exit into the cave, his mind went to Raven, and suddenly, he felt he needed to hurry outside. He wanted to ask Brett where he was having Raven held.


Unfortunately, when he exited the cave, his rival was nowhere to be found.


He pulled out his MCD and checked for a signal. It was strong and clear, and he called Catin.


“Hey, Bane, I just got a call. I’m on my way to pick up Raven. Brett called me and told me where to find him. Can you believe it? What happened, anyway?”


“I found the treasure. It’s — not exactly what I expected. I’ll show it to you when I get into Westerview. I need to return to the ruins, though. There’s something there I need to get.”


“All right. Any idea when you plan to be back?”


“Sometime tonight, maybe tomorrow morning.”


“See you then.”


They hung up, and Bane sat down on the ground. He retrieved some rope from his pack and tied the trunk closed. He’d repair it later, but for now, he just wanted to keep it secure. Once that was done, he headed back up into the hills in order to avoid the gunman he’d encountered earlier. He planned to sneak onto the Zamada property after sundown and find what he needed.


~*~


Bane entered the Zamada estate by the northwestern wall. The wound in his arm was bothering him, so it was a bit of a chore to climb it, but he did, and his feet hit the ground with a light thud on the other side. He waited for any sign that the dog or the gunman might be near. Nothing happened, so he moved on toward the main house.


It looked like someone had recently bought the place. Several pallets of building supplies lay stacked in neat rows at the back of the house. Bane moved between these and the house, and soon came out on the side where the courtyard stood. He found the spot where Sahmi’s room had been so long ago, and he sat down on a patch of grass that had taken over where stone tiles used to be.


He took out the small trunk, untied the rope, and opened it. He pulled out the parchment and read it again by the light of the moon, then continued on to the part he hadn’t read aloud before.


"There’s another treasure located in a vault under the floor of my old room at the estate. There’s a stone table, and it’s buried near it. Feel around, and you will find a metal door with a ring on it. Once you get that open, you will find the rest of my treasure. Some of it, which lies in a locked wooden box, is not of much value to the average man, but to me, it holds great sentimental value. The ring I won from An’n, the wraith assassin, and my lover after the death of my precious Catin. The first fifty gold doubloons I ever made through honest work, which is to say before I took up piracy. A pouch to be opened only by my dear friend, Shinjou Masakatsu. I will not say what it contains.


"And, of course, there is a great deal of gold and precious jewels filling up most of the rest of the vault. The vault is bigger than one would think, and only I know of its true location -- and now you do, as well.


"And if it is my best friend, Bane Asmodei, who is reading this, I have a secret to tell you. I know that Catin still lives. Or did when I passed on. No one told me. I figured it out. You and the others are very poor liars, and I learned rather quickly what she really was. I won’t get into all the small things you did that gave it away. It’s enough that you know. I can only assume that you kept it from me to spare my feelings and to protect her. If she was a sentinel, as I believe, then she would need to keep that a secret even from me. Once she 'died,' she could never return to me. We were happy together for a short while, and I would never trade it for anything.


"Bane, you have been the best friend a man could ever hope to have. I pray that you find another man with whom you can develop a close friendship, as you did with me. It is not good for a man to be without close friends. Every one of us should have at least one at all times. I am proud to have called you that friend, the friend who sticks closer than a brother. You have always been most dear to me. I only wish I would have told you how I felt more often.


"Enough of this mushy stuff. It is time for you to set me free. I will see you on the other side. I look forward to it!


"Always your servant,


"Sahmi Zamada"


Bane re-read the part about where to find the rest of Sahmi’s treasure, then he looked around. He could barely make out a stone table in the darkness, and he approached it.


He felt the ground beneath it, brushing the sand away. His hand hit something hard and unmoving, and he dug further. There, beneath the sand, lay a rusty metal door with a ring on it. He pulled on the ring, but it was corroded. It crumbled where it was attached to the door, and it broke off.


He felt around the edges of the door. He couldn’t grab it with his fingertips, so he pulled out his knife and wedged the tip of the blade under it, using it to jimmy it open. It opened with a creak, and Bane grimaced, listening for the bark of the big black dog. Nothing happened, and he returned his attention to the lock box in the ground.


Inside, he found Sahmi’s Ring of Chaos and fifty very old doubloons. By modern standards, the coins were practically worthless, except in a museum, but to Bane, they were a fortune. Sahmi had once touched them. Holding them now made Bane feel close to the friend who had died almost 1200 years ago. It brought tears to his eyes — and a smile to his lips.


He reached into the box again and found a small pouch. He could barely make out Raven’s name, Shinjou Masakatsu. He knew that Sahmi and Raven had grown close, but he didn’t know how close. He just knew that the contents of the pouch were for Raven’s eyes only. He would respect that. It was one of Sahmi’s last wishes.


His MCD rang, and he answered it without checking to see who it was. Relief flooded him when he heard Raven’s voice. “You’re okay!” he exclaimed, his voice a bit strangled with emotion.


“I’m okay. How are things in Al Shasra? You okay?”


“Yeah, I’m good. What happened to you?”


“They locked me in a windowless room is all. I was more worried about Saiki,” Raven said, referring to his pet white raven. “And you. They told me they had you, too.”


“I’m just glad you’re okay, man. Really. I’ll be home soon, and I’ve got something for you,” Bane said, glancing down at the pouch in his hand.


“What is it?”


“I don’t know, but it’s got your name on it. You can check it out when I get back.”


~*~


Back in Westerview, later that same night, Bane met up with Raven at his apartment. He showed Raven the contents of Sahmi’s locked wooden boxes, which Raven thought would definitely have a lot of value to the right people.


“I guess so, but I’m not selling it. I don’t care how much it’s worth, monetarily. To me, it’s priceless.”


“I get that, man. I do.”


Bane pulled out the pouch with Raven’s name on it. He handed it to his friend, who stared at it for the longest time.


“Do you remember the first time I met Sahmi?” Raven asked quietly.


“Like it was yesterday,” Bane said with a nod. “It was like he found his kindred spirit. You guys were so much alike, and in all the ways that mattered.”


“I know what’s inside, but I don’t want to look at it.”


“I understand. I can lock it away for you, if you want.”


Raven shook his head. “I don’t want to look at it, but that doesn’t mean I won’t.”


Slowly, Raven opened the pouch, then he turned it upside down over the open palm of his hand. There lay two Rings of Communication.


“RoC’s?” Bane exclaimed in surprise. “I don’t remember Sahmi ever giving you anything like that.”


“He did, and we talked often.”


“What did you talk about?”


“Most of our conversations were held in the strictest confidence. Even after all these years, I wouldn’t tell you. But I can tell you this much: Sahmi was proud of you. I mean, it’s true that he was proud of all his crew members, especially the ones that went on to greatness. But no one held his esteem as much as you did. Dumar and Luca came close, but the only one Sahmi ever considered to be close as a brother was you.”


“He told me as much the last time we talked, but it’s good to know he told you, too,” Bane said quietly. “So how’d the ring get back to Sahmi?”


“My ring was my parting gift to him before he died, just like Luca’s medal, Dumar’s pendant, and your journal.” Raven slipped the rings back into the pouch and handed it to Bane. “Go ahead and put it back in the box. It was enough to hold them again one last time. Now, I — I’d just like to be alone.”


Bane took the pouch and set it in the box. The friends didn’t speak as he walked Raven to the door and let him out. He had a good idea how Raven felt. Reliving so many memories was hard. They both missed Sahmi a great deal.


~*~


Later, Bane met Catin at Saffron’s for a very late dinner. When they finished their dessert, he pulled out the white handkerchief from Sahmi’s treasure.


“This was in his things,” he said, handing it to her. “Want it back?”


Her eyes glistened as she took it and studied it, running her fingers over the lacy edge. He waited for her to speak, and when she finally did, she gave him a sad smile as she handed it back. “Keep it with his things. It’s a part of his treasure, and it should stay there.


She reached up across the table and lightly touched Bane’s face. “A part of me will always love Sahmi, but he’s gone. I love another now. I just wish he would reciprocate.”


She rose to her feet, turned, and walked away, leaving Bane to think over her last words and the reasons he couldn’t let himself be with her.


Without coming any closer to a real solution to that particular problem, he headed home.

"He who would travel happily must travel light."

Antoine de Saint-Exupery


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